Choosing the parts for a computer can be a very difficult and a time-consuming process. There is no perfect system for all tasks, so what it really comes down to is two basic questions: how much do you want to spend, and how do you plan on using the computer? If you ever talk to someone about suggestions on computer parts, and they don't take the time to at least ask these two basic questions before they begin offering advice, we would suggest that at the very least, you get a second opinion before plunking down your hard earned cash on a bunch of exotic sounding parts that you may never need.

For this Guide, the first answer is relatively simple. Our target price is around $1250 for a complete "Mid-Range" system. This is a bit higher than our past Mid-Range systems, but many of your comments indicated that you were willing to spend a little bit more than $1000 for a moderately equipped PC. Not included in the final cost are taxes and an OS. The answer to the second question is much more elaborate, and we will do our best to list various options that we consider to be reasonable for this price segment. We will also include a list of potential upgrades for any of these systems with information on whom we feel will benefit most from the options. One option that we will not dwell on here is gaming performance - we'll take a look at systems tailored specifically for that task in an upcoming Guide.

Our first criterion for selecting parts is to choose components that we feel are reliable. No one wants a computer that crashes periodically due to flaky hardware. It is impossible to guarantee 100% reliability, of course, especially when looking at parts that may be less than a year old, so your own experience may differ from ours. After reliability, performance is the next factor to consider, although it needs to fit within our budget. What we really want, then, is the best price/performance ratio for the type of application that we are looking at - more on that in a moment. Finally, features are also something that we will consider, as if the price and performance are basically the same, more "free stuff" is always a welcome addition.

Building a system that is "everything to everyone" is simply not possible when price is a consideration. Yeah, you could put two Opteron 250 or Xeon 3.6 CPUs in a system with several GB of RAM and a large RAID 5 SCSI array and performance will be exceptional in pretty much any application, but such a system is beyond the budget of most people. In order to get around this, we will be looking at several base system configurations with suggestions on how various components might be adjusted to improve the performance of certain applications. Those who are not interested in the alternative suggestions can stick with the basic setup, but we will focus on upgrades that might be useful for people interested in Content Creation, and Software Development. Any Mid-Range system costing around $1250 should be able to do just about any task well enough for light to moderate use, but saving $50 to $100 on a component that isn't as important for one task and spending it somewhere else where the added performance will be used can help you to get the most out of your computer.

Of course, if you're looking for advice on building a budget system, take a look at our last Entry Level Guide. Such a system is much more cost efficient for those who are looking for a computer for basic email, Internet and office use. If, on the other hand, you want the fastest hardware on the planet and the bragging rights that go with it, check out our latest High End Guide. Here, we will be trying to strike a balance somewhere between those two extremes. The majority of our prices can be found using our Real Time Pricing Engine, although we also use sites such as If you find parts on sale for less than the prices that we list, then that can influence your decision, so by all means, feel free to shop around. Local stores are also an option, and while components usually cost more in that venue, you tend to get better support and the RMA process is usually a matter of minutes or hours rather than weeks.

There Is No Spoon...
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  • hh - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    > Very good. I am impressed. However, are we
    > going to see benchmarks in these anytime soon?

    Benchmarks are merely a tool to try to determine whats better/worse/"equivalent" for its price.

    And I do realize that this may be somewhat contrary to the general intent of the article, but we do have to recognize that DIY'ing falls into two basic motivational catagories: those who do it because they enjoy it (hobby) and those who want to save money vs. OEM (value).

    For the latter, it comes down to cost:performance. As a example, taking the $1250 system upgraded to the 17" LCD monitor and XP/P OS puts us at roughly $1500. Now suppose that we could get an "equivalent" system (performance) but someone else did the assembly, optimization and compatibility hassles, performed the OS installation, and gave us a warranty. Clearly, that PC build wouild be worth more, but how much more?

    One OEM example to consider is the Apple iMac 1.6Gz G5 17" at $1300 + 1GB aftermarket RAM upgrade +$250, which puts us at a $1550 pricepoint.

    For this example, the value-added extras of hardware assembly, optimization/compatibility/debug, the OS install and a system warranty is only $50 more. YMMV if this is small enough for many value-oriented people would be willing to pay for (IMO, yes).

    The remaining question is if such a $1550 OEM system is/isn't "equivalent" to the $1500 DIY system to conclude which is the better overall consumer value.

    And because of the Apple here, the "equivalency" question is a huge gaping hole. That's no accident: I did it on purpose because my intent is to look at this more rhetorically to as to illustrate the philisophical, not to introduce a Mac performance debate (so please don't). Yes, I could have chosen a Dell or Gateway, but I loathe their websites and they typically have too many hardware variables that would only drag us down into the weeds instead of seeing the basics of the big picture first.

    This article was interesting reading. Thanks again.

  • draazeejs - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    Why did they change the HDD recommendation from Seagate to Samsung? Does anyone have experience with how loud those drives are? I have a Barracuda IV, 40GB, and that one is totally silent. As far as I have heard the new Barracudas are much louder. Why is that so?
  • PrinceGaz - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    If the NEC ND-3500A lives up to the standards of the previous ND-2500A/2510A, then its likely to be the best drive in its class with standard firmware. The quality and value of those drives was unbeatable.

    Hacked firmware to add more media types or higher burn speeds with them is a nice bonus for those who want it, but is totally optional. The drives are still excellent straight out the box.
  • deathwalker - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    #28..I don't think recommendations for a Optical drive should be based on "hacked" firmware...I'm sticking with my original thought that the Pioneer drive would have seemed like the likely choice based upon there recent review..having said that though, I'nm sure the NEC drive is a fine drive also.
  • MustISO - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    Looking at the memory chart, RAM is really going up. That sucks!
  • iversonyin - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    logitech > MS when it come to mouse
  • MIDIman - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    > The NEC is a little curious though, given the
    > glowing review of the Pioneer a few weeks
    > ago...

    I think the point here might be post hacked firmware. After flashing my 3500a, its quite incredible what its capable of, and its possible that anandtech has already done an NEC article and just hasn't put it up quite yet.
  • Murmandamus - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    Great guide!

    I'm considering setting up an HTPC. So I would sure like to see a htpc guide from you guys.

  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    Let's just say I have insider information from Kristopher. Blame him. ;)
  • gherald - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    > #5 - Posted on Oct 21, 2004 at 1:34 PM by PrinceGaz wrote:
    > I've just finished reading it and amazingly, I can't fault any of your recommendations!

    I have to agree! In particular it's great to finally start seeing good case/PSUs from Antec and Shuttle.

    The NEC is a little curious though, given the glowing review of the Pioneer a few weeks ago...

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